The Nature Conservancy at work in Central Colorado

Article by Marcia Darnell

Land Use – July 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Ah, summer. When a hiker’s fancy turns to untrampled land, unusual plants, and a vista free of condo developments.

The Nature Conservancy holds four such areas in central Colorado: High Creek Fen Preserve, Mishak Lakes, Mexican Cut Preserve, and Hoosier Ridge Preserve.

The Nature Conservancy, based in Washington, D.C., takes, according to its mission statement, “a cooperative, non-confrontational approach” to land and water use issues.”

Rather than fight in court or in legislative halls, the conservancy works with private property owners. Quite often, The Nature Conservancy just buys the land in question. This is an excellent way to keep developers, miners, ranchers, et al, from harming the land. Ownership means never having to say “I’m an earth-raper.”

This approach has gained public favor. The Chronicle of Philanthropy said the Nature Conservancy was the 28th largest charitable organization in 1993. It received far more private support — $143.6 million — than any other environmental organization in America. The next one was the World Wildlife Fund, at 130th with $44.7 million.

Mishak Lakes in Saguache County was acquired by the Nature Conservancy last August from the estate of John Andrew Mishak. Its 1,080 acres comprise a shallow-water wetland with many seasonal ponds which develop in April and last until July. Birds love it. Ornithologists can see the greater sandhill crane, Wilson’s phalarope, white-faced ibis and American avocet.

Other rare species in the area include the slender siderflower, the least chipmunk and the Ord’s kangaroo rat. The sand hills skipper, a butterfly indigenous to the San Luis Valley, can also be found at Mishak Lakes.

Unfortunately, Mishak Lakes is not accessible to the public now, because the surrounding land is private property. However, the conservancy has the option to buy another 700 acres nearby, which may open the area to visitors.

Alan Carpenter, the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado Land Steward, says that the organization’s goal is to maintain the area as a wetland. The conservancy allows some livestock grazing on the preserve, as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the shore birds.

Mishak Lakes is about five miles west and five miles south of Moffat. The Conservancy is offering a tour of the preserve from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 9. For more information call Audrey Wolk at 303-444-2985.

Park County is home to Hoosier Ridge Preserve, approximately two miles west of Hoosier Pass. The four-acre area is on an alpine slope at 12,100 feet and is accessible by car.

Carpenter says the site “has more rare plants that any other area in Colorado.” An arctic plant, Braya humilis (variety humilis) is found there, along with globe gilia, another rare plant.

The plants are supported by soil containing large amounts of limestone and dolomite (calcium and magnesium carbonate). Both species were threatened by mining at a nearby mine, which has closed. The surrounding land is held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Hoosier Ridge Preserve is a two-mile hike from the parking lot at the summit of Hoosier Ridge. Carpenter says that during the fall and winter, the area is accessible by car, although there’s a fence to keep folks from driving over the plants. It’s not posted, so call the conservancy’s Colorado Field Office at 303-444-2950 for directions.

Mexican Cut Preserve lies in Gunnison County, about a mile west-northwest of Schofield Pass. The 960-acre site contains a series of ponds and wetlands, each with its own species composition. The preserve lies on the side of Galena Mountain, on shelves created by glaciation.

The preserve is leased to Rocky Mountain Biological Lab as a research area for $1 a year. The lab manages the land. Also helping out is the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has secured the water rights for non-consumptive use.

Critters living at the preserve include tiger salamanders, which use the area as a breeding ground, and a species of fern, the Steller’s cliff brake, found in only two places in the state.

Mexican Cut Preserve is “more or less surrounded by Forest Service property,” according to Land Steward Carpenter. He recommends calling Susan Lohr, lab director, at 303-349-7231 for directions to the site.

High Creek Fen Preserve in South Park is near and dear to many area schoolchildren because they helped buy it. In 1991 fifth- and sixth-grade students in Bailey collected 1 million pennies to see what a million looked like. They donated the resulting $10,000 to The Nature Conservancy, which helped purchase the 714-acre preserve at High Creek.

The preserve contains more rare plant species than any other wetland in Colorado, including three found nowhere else in the state. Blue spruce are also found on the site. The spotted sandpiper and Wilson’s phalarope call the fen home, as does a rare snail, Physa skinneri.

High Creek Fen Preserve is just north of the intersection of U.S. 285 and County Road 24 in South Park. An access road is a few miles north of the junction.

With all this protected land in the region, there’s no need to hike in crowded parks or compete with the tourists for picnic spots. So grab a daypack, load the camera, and call 303-444-2950 for more information on the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado Program.

Someday soon, the Conservancy could be a local call from parts of Central Colorado, since the organization hopes to open a local office this year if it can raise the money.

Joining four other “community-based programs” around the state, the new one-person office would be in northern Saguache County, and it could be open by late summer. The Conservancy plans to hire locally.

Marcia Darnell, a member of the Nature Conservancy, lives and writes in the San Luis Valley, where she helps preserve the rare housecat.